CA audit says UC Berkeley falsified student-athlete recruitments for wealthy, connected applicants

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More than a year after federal prosecutors revealed an investigation into a massive college admissions scheme, a recent report implicates UC Berkeley in similar practices from 2013 to 2019. The California state auditor released the report Tuesday morning, indicating that UC Berkeley inappropriately admitted at least 13 student-athletes as favors to donors, family members and friends, among other allegations.

In one case described in the report, the child of a major donor received the lowest scores of “Do Not Recommend” on their UC Berkeley application. The associate director of the donor relations department then told a coach the applicant’s father “has huge capacity and is already a big supporter of Cal,” the report states. The coach then “falsely identified the applicant as a qualified athlete” to get them admitted. The audit adds that the applicant’s family subsequently donated thousands of dollars to the team even though the applicant never competed for the team.

“These allegations, if true, are unacceptable, especially in our community where excellence, fairness and equity are our core values,” said Chancellor Carol Christ in a statement.

Another conversation released in the audit features an assistant coach sending an email to the head coach saying a family’s “recruiting agent called me up … to have a direct conversation about what needed to happen next with this kid. … The family has made it clear they would like to ‘add to the legacy of the (sports team) and their family at Berkeley’ to the tune of (amount redacted in report) donation. Figured I’d double check with you guys before I told him ‘thanks/no thanks.’ ”

The report shows the head coach responded with a wine glass emoji and a string of thumbs-up emoji and asked if the amount of money would be paid “upfront for this year.”

Three days later, according to the audit, the assistant coach told the recruiting agent, “After getting a chance to discuss our conversation with the staff yesterday, (the head coach) is open to opportunities and would like the chance to speak on the phone. If the (family) is willing to establish their legacy with Berkeley and (the sports team) very soon involving the figures you suggested, we’ve already identified specific short‑term & long‑term needs of the program. With this could *possibly* come early admission for (the applicant) to facilitate the process & agreement.”

The report states that these improper admissions were due to a lack of safeguards, including requiring admissions staff to disclose associations with outside organizations or potential applicants and prohibiting communication between the donor relations staff and the admissions staff.

Although UC Berkeley had established some safeguards, auditors could not find evidence that all of these rules were enforced. Policies that were meant to ensure prospective student-athletes had their talent reviewed before admission were tested by selecting 10 Cal student-athletes, but the campus was not able to provide evidence that this review actually happened, according to the report. Furthermore, UC Berkeley had a policy requiring that student-athletes participate in their sport for a minimum of one year; however, the report found that “none of the campuses we reviewed had policies for adequately investigating the circumstances of the admission of athletes who quit the team soon after admission.”

UC Berkeley recently adopted a policy to check for donations connected to prospective student-athletes during admission, but the report found that many of the donations occurred after the applicants were admitted.

The auditors identified several structural problems in the athletic department. Many teams rely heavily on donations to complete their budgets. For example, over a five-year period, the Cal men’s tennis team received 75% of its budget from donations. Also, the campus generally holds coaches responsible for fundraising, which puts significant pressure on them to appease current donors and build relationships with new donors, according to the report.

The audit also cites the difference between the general admission pool and the student-athlete admission pool as a source of potential abuse. At UC Berkeley, two-thirds of student-athletes admitted from 2017-18 through 2019-20 received the lowest possible scores from application readers.

“In combination, the high acceptance rate and lower standards in key areas of applicant review elevate the risk of inappropriate influence during the admissions process because they make admission as a prospective student athlete an attractive option for applicants who are not academically competitive for admission through the regular admissions process,” the report reads.

Overall, the report found definitive evidence that 13 Cal student-athletes were improperly admitted, but it indicates that the real number is likely higher. The auditors only investigated a fraction of the teams across three schools and still found more than 400 cases of student-athletes leaving their team after less than a year. One student was only admitted after a coach pushed their application through a few months before classes started, according to the report. The audit found no evidence the student ever played for the team or appeared on a public roster, but the student was not included in the count. The 13 student-athlete cases were ones for which the auditors found definitive evidence such as emails in their review.

The report has several recommendations, including that beginning in 2021-22, the UC Office of the President should oversee UC Berkeley admissions for at least three years.

Trilok Reddy covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].